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Ex-Dothan resident among those saving lives after Florence

September 29, 2018

DOTHAN, Ala. (AP) — When Ashford High School graduate and former Dothan resident Brian Johnson joined the United States Coast Guard, he said he did so because he wanted to help people. That was in 2008. Ten years later, Johnson got his biggest chance to do just that.

As a helicopter rescue swimmer, Petty Officer Johnson had to put to use all of the life-saving skills he had learned when Hurricane Florence came roaring ashore in North Carolina. Ironically, Johnson had only moved to Air Station Elizabeth City in North Carolina about three months ago. About a week before the hurricane struck, Johnson was out of town when a direct hit from what was predicted to be a Category 4 hurricane became a possibility.

Johnson was in touch with his wife (the former Scout Rings of Dothan) and they discussed the possibility of his wife and kids evacuating to a safe place. A couple of days later, it was no longer a possibility, it was a reality. His wife and kids evacuated to Ohio. But with Johnson being a helicopter rescue swimmer, he couldn’t go anywhere. It was his job — along with that of his crew and many others — to stay behind and rescue those who had the choice to leave but chose not to.

“In the days leading up the hurricane, everyone had to complete their own duties for hurricane prep,” Johnson said. “The rescue swimmer shop was tasked with having all the survival gear ready on the plane on top of extra gear for the crews coming in from other air stations. We also had to gather supplemental gear that is not used during normal operations. We had to be prepared for anything because you never know what situations a hurricane will bring. ”

“We pieced together hurricane kits which included axes, chain saws, extra fuel, pry bars, sledge hammers, etc. We need those tools to be ready to break through roofs and doors that are too flooded, cut through trees that are obstructing a rescue, and cut people out of vehicles that are being used as a means to avoid swift water caused from flooding.”

All of that preparation paid off. Shortly after the hurricane hit, flooding became and continues to be a huge problem in North Carolina. Johnson and fellow Coast Guard rescuers had to break in doors and jump out of helicopters and so much more.

“Another rescue swimmer and myself were lowered down to a flooded corn field,” Johnson said. “We had to swim through it, across a street, and then into someone’s front yard. We made contact with four people and their dog. We made the decision to hoist them, so we called the helicopter in and placed the survivors one by one into a rescue basket. After they were safely in the aircraft the other swimmer and I were recovered by the hoist cable and we transferred the survivors to a local hospital that was taking in people affected by the flooding.”

This type of scene was repeated over and over. As of the night of Sept. 18, Johnson and his crew had saved 20 people — 14 adults, five kids, and one infant. They had also rescued seven dogs, which was extremely important to Johnson being a dog lover. He said one of the dogs bit him, but he said he knew it was because he was scared.

Johnson’s crew was just one of dozens from across the country and Puerto Rico that were involved in the rescue of hundreds of people. And it wasn’t just people and dogs that were rescued.

“One of the crews evacuated the family and their goats and bunnies,” he said. “The family would not leave without their animals.”

During his Coast Guard career, Johnson has participated in hundreds of rescues. He is used to jumping from helicopters into huge bodies or water and doing things like pulling people off sinking boats or submerged vehicles. But this time it was different.

“Normally you don’t know what to expect,” he said. “When you’re on 24-hour duty, you’re waiting for calls to come in. You don’t know what you might encounter once you get there. But we had plenty of time to prepare for this event and we were prepped on different situations from past hurricanes.”

Despite adequate preparation, this situation was still unique.

“When we jump in the water, we know what we are dealing with. This time we were put in situations that we don’t normally see. When you’re dropped in the middle of a flooded cornfield or a flooded street, you don’t know what’s under you. We had one of our guys step into ditch because he couldn’t see what was below him. That could have easily been an open manhole cover that had been washed away and he would have been in real trouble.”

Johnson said the other unusual thing about the rescues during the hurricane was the time.

“I’ve worked harder on other rescues, but that’s usually for 30 or 40 minutes to a few hours tops per event. This has gone on for days and you work long hours every day. It has been more mentally exhausting than anything I’ve been involved with. It takes a toll on you.”

Despite performing a dangerous and often life-threatening job for 10 years, Johnson says he feels very fortunate with Hurricane Florence.

“Luckily my house wasn’t damaged. When the hurricane changed directions, we were just north of the big impact area. But I saw so many people who lost practically everything. This entire event stands out to me and I will never forget it. I was fortunate enough to be able to help people whose lives had been mostly destroyed. This has reminded me of just how quickly you can lose everything.”

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Information from: The Dothan Eagle, http://www.dothaneagle.com

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